Smart thinking will turn Ireland into a digital economy leader

4 Jun 2009

Hewlett-Packard’s Martin Murphy believes Ireland must play to its technical strengths.

In March, while the nation continued to digest more bad economic news and feel helpless as the rate of unemployment continued to accelerate, there was a break in the clouds.

The world’s biggest technology company, Hewlett-Packard (HP), provided a beleaguered nation with the news that some 500 new jobs were to be created in Leixlip as part of a major expansion to create a global services desk.

HP, which has invested over €1bn in Ireland in the past decade, already employs 4,000 people across a diverse range of activities from inkjet cartridge manufacturing to managed services, enterprise systems and corporate finance. Just this year, it emerged that HP’s Personal Systems Group became the largest PC vendor in the Irish market, with a 32.9pc market share, growing at a 7.1pc-a-year rate.

The company said the decision to locate the 500 new jobs here was driven by the ability to tap into highly skilled labour and talent pools. The multilingual technical support centre will employ a range of people, including high-end graduates.

But that wasn’t the only good news – it emerged that the project has the potential to grow to 1,000 new jobs in the coming years. It is understood that a battle against other countries to win the project was hard fought by HP’s Irish management. Leading the fight was the local general manager, Martin Murphy.

As well as driving a multi-billion euro business, Murphy is a passionate proponent of all that Ireland can offer the world if it plays to the strengths of its people and its technology potential. That means supporting its entrepreneurs, investing in digital infrastructure and making its education system leading-edge. He calls his vision ‘Brand Ireland’ and says talk of Ireland’s smart economy by its Government will need to turn into rapid action.

“We announced the 500 new jobs back in March, but we’ve got 300 of those filled already. The reason we won that project is because we’ve a very solid business plan here. Two of the best things you can do in business are: firstly build on what you’ve got and secondly play to your strengths.

“That jobs announcement came amid tough international competition. We won it because we played to Ireland’s strengths. These are delivering multinational products and services from this location. Why is that? We have multilingual workers and the technical skills, that combination. These strengths were spotted by HP. If Ireland continues to play its cards right, it could lead the world as a hub for international services.”

Murphy is well aware that all is not well in the State of Ireland, but says clear thinking and action at all levels will deliver on the smart economy vision the Government unveiled before Christmas.

“Every other nation is gearing itself up to come out of the downturn as strongly as it possibly can. The same should apply here.

“At the moment, the smart economy is at best a framework, not a plan. The challenge is to get into execution mode, to start setting targets and start delivering. If we don’t, the smart-economy vision will just be another fine document gathering dust.”

A global race is on for nations from the UK to France and the US to lead in the unfolding global digital economy. President Obama embraced this from day one. In Australia, the government is placing a $5bn bet on digital infrastructure, rolling fibre networks across the entire continent.

Murphy believes a bold vision for Ireland Inc is needed and that smart thinking, where waste is eradicated and efficiency rewarded, needs to permeate all levels of the State.

“I would start with ‘online only’ services from Government, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. If the airline industry and the banking industry can do it, why not government? This will drive the adoption of internet across the land, boosting telecoms and demand for access devices.

“One of the trends we’re noticing in HP is the downturn is actually driving people online.   A cornerstone of smart government is always-available government services online.”

As well as a smarter State, he believes businesses in new smart industries, led by courageous entrepreneurs unafraid of failure, should be allowed to flourish. The strong multinational presence of firms such as Intel, Microsoft, HP and Google are keeping Ireland in the game, but it will be the entrepreneurs who will deliver the miracle.

“In the past few weeks, I have been deeply impressed by the quality of entrepreneurs that have come to the surface and I’ve talked to a number of them about taking their products to the global stage. The challenge for Ireland Inc is to create jobs. That challenge can only be met by developing a large number of indigenous industries that will deliver the high-value jobs.

“We have a golden goose, which is the multinational community. But, equally, we have a fantastic entrepreneurial flare. How can Ireland create its own HP or Google?

“We’ve done it before with Roadstone, CRH, Glanbia, Smurfit and Glen-Dimplex. There’s a strong list of great Irish companies that have done well on the international markets. If the digital economy is where the world is heading, we need great Irish companies leading the way. We need to build on what we have and be better than anybody else.

“To do this we need the investment culture, the network infrastructure, and these are things that we’ve been deprived of for too many years.”

In Northern Ireland, over €200m has been invested in ensuring all schools are equipped for the 21st century. The lamentable failure to do the same in the Republic has to be another missed opportunity from the boom years.

In Belfast, school children have access to laptops and whiteboards, where they can hold videoconferences with other schools and talk to Oxford dons about Shakespeare.

“Every school-going child in the Republic should have access to the latest technology. I don’t buy into the notion of let’s create the broadband access and see what happens. There is a digital divide and this divide is going to become more pronounced over the next seven years. Every school should be equipped with the technology it needs to deliver the curriculum using ICT. Failure to do so will be a disservice to future generations.”

From an international perspective, Murphy agrees the damage done to the Irish economy’s image has been immense.

“Just 12 months ago, Ireland was the jewel in the crown: now the country is challenged.

“But while companies such as HP look at Ireland and recognise these challenges we also see the benefits. HP has been in Ireland for 25 years and we have over 4,000 workers here. It was a huge investment decision, but we saw Ireland for what it was.

“Ireland still offers a lot to companies like HP, but the country needs to get its house in order. There’s no question about it,” he concludes.

By John Kennedy

Pictured: Martin Murphy, general manager, HP Ireland